Friday, September 18, 2009

Living High and Letting Die

Yesterday, Timothy Noah of Slate set out to explain how a reporting error he committed ended up in several of President Obama's speeches on health insurance reform. In that article, "My Mistake," he also apologizes for the error.

But I found one claim Noah makes in that article especially interesting. "People die every day from a lack of health insurance," writes Noah. "A new Harvard study says it's responsible for 45,000 deaths annually." That study, "Health Insurance and Mortality in US Adults," is to be published in the American Journal of Public Health.

One of the goals of health insurance reform is to insure millions of adults who now have no health insurance. The aforementioned Harvard study estimates that there are 46 million Americans without health insurance. Surely, many of them simply cannot afford health insurance. And without insurance, many of them cannot afford medical care, and many of them die as a result. Many of these premature deaths are the result of human inaction and are completely avoidable.

As Jacqueline L. Salmon of the Washington Post reports, many conservative Christians are opposed to health insurance reform. "A coalition of three dozen conservative Christian organizations, representing 5 million people and calling itself the Freedom Federation, announced its formation last month. It has taken on opposition to health-care reform as its first issue," Salmon writes. One has to wonder why.

Helping those who are in need is, it seems, an essential part of Christian doctrine. If one needs scriptural support for this claim, one need look no further than the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37):
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'[c]; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."
Jesus here commands us to make significant sacrifices to aid those in distress. There is also this passage from Philippians (2:3-4): "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others."

Now, some might object to this by making what I think is an arbitrary distinction. Some argue that Christians do indeed have a duty to aid those who are in distress, but that it is wrong for governments to force people through taxation or other means to help others. In one bill being considered, people would have to choose between buying health insurance or paying a severe penalty. The idea, as I understand it, is that the more people who have insurance, the less that insurance will cost any one policyholder, and the greater their power to negotiate for lower prices. By requiring that more people share the risk, each person helps everyone else buy affordable insurance. Since this would force people to help others, however, some find it objectionable.

Why make this moral distinction, though? Conservative Christians in general show little tolerance for those who think differently, so they're probably not motivated by respect for libertarian views. We can do far more to help those in need collectively than we can as uncoordinated individuals. And lives are at stake, after all, which normally trumps everything else for Christians. Why doesn't it in this case as well? Some Christians seem to believe that it is more important that they be free to fail in their duties than it is that thousands of lives are saved.

Perhaps the real problem here is that it is actually a lot more difficult to be a Christian than is generally recognized. Christians now have an opportunity to make a morally significant choice. Let us all hope that they choose wisely.

(Living High and Letting Die is the name of a book by Peter Unger on the ethics of famine relief.)

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It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. ---W.K. Clifford

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear. ---Thomas Jefferson